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Something Old Under the Sun : Le Theatre du Soleil will bring its massive presentation of Greek tragedies from France to Los Angeles, if the gods allow

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<i> Sylvie Drake is The Times' drama critic</i>

The fall has been unseasonably warm. At the Cartoucherie, a former bullet factory in the woods of Vincennes that serves as home base to Le Theatre du Soleil, chestnuts litter the ground and a gray sun peers from behind the clouds.

During the hour break after “Agamemnon,” the second part of the Soleil’s year-old staging of “Les Atrides,” audience members are milling about in front of the compound talking, eating Indian delicacies, wondering if it’s going to rain and patiently waiting for the third play to begin.

“Les Atrides,” French for “The House of Atreus,” is artistic director Ariane Mnouchkine’s latest massive undertaking--a three-part, soon to become a four-part, staging of Euripedes’ “Iphigenia in Aulis,” and two plays from Aeschylus’ “Oresteia”: “Agamemnon” and “The Cup Bearers.”

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The ubiquitous Mnouchkine, in an old sweater, her steel-gray hair blowing in the wind as she chats with the public or collects tickets at the door, expects to complete this cycle about the ultimate dysfunctional family with the addition in March of Aeschylus’ “Eumenides.”

Los Angeles may have the chance to see the plays next fall if the necessary funds can be raised. It all hinges on money. But for some time now, Vincent Bleuse, a former member of Mnouchkine’s company who works in the office of the French cultural attache in Los Angeles, has been trying to interest Harvey Lichtenstein of the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Gordon Davidson of the Center Theatre Group into joining forces to bring this four-part epic to their respective cities.

Incredibly, New York has never seen Mnouchkine’s work, and Los Angeles, which responded euphorically to the Shakespeare cycle that the Soleil brought to the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival, can never forget it.

Davidson puts the cost of the L.A. leg at between $500,000 and $1 million. “Pretty daunting” in tight economic times, he says, “but important to attempt. We’re in no position to risk money. We need two things: donations and guarantors.”

The French government has said it means to participate, but details remain to be worked out. The site selected (a movie sound stage most likely) will influence costs. “If the site has to be made into a theater, it could be very costly,” Bleuse explains. “A partially equipped space would help.”

At the Cartoucherie it’s easy to see why. As you step into the theater--which resembles a sound stage, with its open dressing rooms in full view of the public, its bleacher seating and a playing area nearly twice as large as the seating area--you walk through mock archeological digs. These contain Erhard Stiefel’s life-size statues of characters in the plays standing in sand pits six feet deep. (Mnouchkine similarly surrounded the audience with 600 large dolls for her epic 1985 production of “The Terrible but Unfinished Story of Norodom Sihanouk, King of Cambodia.”)

“We like to create an environment, for the actors and the audience,” Mnouchkine had explained earlier that morning.

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Even in the large, high-ceilinged lobby, a giant map of the Mediterranean world of “Les Atrides” covers the entire far wall. Books dealing with the period are set out for browsing: Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey,” Robert Graves’ “Greek Myths,” Milena Salvini’s book on kathakali (the dance-drama of the Indian region of Kerala that is the inspiration for the style in which these plays are staged) and genealogical charts of gods and mortals.

“When people walk into the theater they must feel that they are in another, more interior world. An escape from the trivial and prosaic. We have the books, the large map. There is food. People can spend a day immersing themselves in this universe.

“It gives them time to forget about the argument they had with the cabdriver on the way over--and to get ready for two hours and 20 minutes that are, after all, difficult. It’s not easy to sit through these plays. They’re 2,500 years old, and there are 12- and 15-year-olds in this audience who are moved and awed by them. It’s important for us to make the experience just a little fuller and easier for them.”

No kidding. The three plays, offered on different nights or in combination over two weekend afternoons, are an increasingly gripping march into a family blood bath. We watch Iphigenia sacrificed to the gods by her agonized father Agamemnon, while her helpless mother Clytemnestra looks on; we see Agamemnon murdered by Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus; finally, we are virtually transfixed as Orestes, Iphigenia’s brother, Agamemnon’s only son, avenges his father’s death by murdering his mother and her lover.

Not exactly “Plaza Suite.” There are as many bodies as there are in “Hamlet” and many, many more words. But anyone who saw Mnouchkine’s Shakespearean cycle during the Olympic Arts Festival knows what she can do with an empty space, music, fabric, movement, costumes, some usurped “Orientalia” (with a nod to playwright David Henry Hwang) and a few highly disciplined actors.

“Part of the genius of the Greeks was their ability to translate thought, reflections and interrogations into action,” says Mnouchkine, 53, who insists that these plays “are active--that’s why they’re theater.” But a lot of the action here is action that Mnouchkine herself has injected.

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First, there is the elaborately costumed, whirling chorus that’s always there, watching and waiting--a living sociological context. When the chorus members are not dancing, they scurry around, climbing and perching on the walls around the stage, peering from behind them, focused intently on events.

Now and then they enter the action directly, helping Iphigenia step down from a high rolling platform by placing their hands like steppingstones under her feet or, like disoriented worker bees whose queen has died, attempting to drag the bloodied mattress where Aegisthus and Clytemnestra lie butchered off the stage. (It won’t budge, as if suddenly anchored by the enormity of the crime.)

Such suggestiveness and symbolism are everywhere. The walls and floor of the stage are the color of sand, offset by a background of striking royal blue. Exits are masked, as in a bullring that, were it round, this space would resemble. It is a place of slaughter.

From between the bleachers, the actors sweep regally on or off stage on a narrow, hand-pushed ramp--a sort of Japanese hanamichi on wheels. This curious device lends surprising majesty to the comings and goings.

Composer-musician Jean-Jacques LeMetre, who created and performs all the music from a long, elevated platform next to the stage, is essential to the productions. Each scene has its musical theme. LeMetre has worked with Mnouchkine since her 1979 staging of “Mephisto” and is present at rehearsals from day one. He then travels for a few weeks gathering instruments and, little by little, begins to construct the crucial musical spine for the plays, often constructing his own instruments as well.

The theatrical idiom, with variations, is the same Soleil adaptation of kathakali that Mnouchkine, who has traveled often to the Far East, used in her Shakespeare plays.

“For me these are Oriental plays,” she says. “Ancient Greece was Oriental, still is to a degree. (Antonin) Artaud used to say, ‘Theater is Oriental.’ And Oriental forms of theater have always attracted me. Kathakali has been an inspiration for us, as a resource. We don’t just copy it. Catherine (Schaub), who did our choreography and plays the leader of the chorus, has studied it, digested it and made use of it, but it’s processed into our own form of expression.”

The same goes for the costumes that Mnouchkine calls “ reveries “--imaginary creations inspired by Indian and Oriental dress but that, with the exception of Iphigenia’s costume (almost textbook Indian), are not direct copies either.

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The actors wear makeup and some sort of costume from the first rehearsal. “We begin with an empty space and end up with an empty space,” Mnouchkine says, smiling.

Aside from stylized movement and makeup, each play in “Les Atrides” is preceded by a drum roll and ends with a menacing chorus of barking dogs. Colors darken as turmoil deepens. In “Agamemnon,” the victors reel, unsure of their footing, strongly suggesting that they are beset by something contagious and foul. By the time we get to “The Cup Bearers,” with its unchained violence and “stench of familial blood,” the wailing chorus members are dressed in black, their palms painted a deep, symbolic red.

Six-footer Simon Abkarian, who plays Agamemnon in the first two plays and Orestes in the third (as well as a number of stunning cameos), gives a manifestation of physical and psychological trauma after killing his mother that leaves even the staunchest audience limp and shaken.

“These are immense texts from the heart,” says Mnouchkine, who has not backed an inch from their brutality. She says the translations (by Mnouchkine and by Jean and Mayotte Bollack) adhere quite rigorously to the original. “We’ve made almost no concessions. I did cut a few magnificent moments from ‘Agamemnon,’ cuts I hated to make, but I had no choice. The references are so obscure, nobody knows them anymore.”

In process for 7 1/2 months, “Les Atrides” is apparently a steppingstone on the way to doing a play about the French Resistance during World War II. Mnouchkine wanted the company to learn first about betrayal and turned to these fundamental texts. “Iphigenia” and “Agamemnon” went into rehearsal a week apart, opening in November, 1990; “The Cup Bearers” followed in January. Staging Euripides’ “Iphigenia” as a prelude to the three plays in Aeschylus’ “Oresteia” was, for Mnouchkine, a way of telling the whole story.

“I wanted everyone to know what happened in Aulis. A public as uninformed as I was before I started working on these pieces wouldn’t understand them and, in particular, wouldn’t understand Clytemnestra. The murder of Agamemnon didn’t just pop into her head because she had taken Aegisthus as a lover. Not at all. It was a form of self-assertion.”

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The plays are at once accessible and demanding, but Mnouchkine’s choice of language is always pointed and spare. Part of the reason her work takes on so much coherence and definition is the way in which the Soleil functions.

“There are people with whom I have always worked and without whom I could not conceive of undertaking some of these projects,” Mnouchkine says simply, “encounters along the way in the life of the Soleil and in my life that have had a profound effect on the work.” She lists her assistant Sophie Moscoso, composer-musician LeMetre, set designer Guy-Claude Francois, costumers Nathalie Thomas and Jean-Claude Barriera and mask-maker and sculptor Stiefel.

Although all actors and technicians have personal lives away from the theater, they are always welcome to share meals with the company or gather after the evening show over a glass of wine and mingle with audiences. They take turns with the cooking at breakfast and lunch. They are, in short, an extended, freewheeling family.

“There is a nucleus that remains constant for anywhere from five to 15 years,” Mnouchkine says, “and we pick up one or two new people with every show. We’ve acquired quite a few with ‘Les Atrides’ because the actors in the chorus last year got a little frustrated. Too bad, but we did change a large portion of the chorus and put in young actors who aren’t frustrated at all, because they weren’t expecting anything else.”

Where does she look for her actors?

“I don’t,” she replies. “They look for us. There are between 45 and 60 actors in the company. When the number rises above 60--we were up to 70 once--it’s just too many. The best balance is at 50 to 55.”

There are the fixtures too, those Mnouchkine calls “the locomotives” that pull the company along: Georges Bigot (unforgettable in the Shakespeares), Schaub (who dates to “Sihanouk”), Abkarian (“Sihanouk”), Nirupama Nityanandan (she joined for “L’Indiade” in 1987 and plays Iphigenia) and Juliana Carneiro da Cunha (a splendid newcomer with this production who is the shattered Clytemnestra). The internationalism of the company, reminiscent of Peter Brook’s Paris-based company, is purely coincidental. “Peter does it on purpose,” Mnouchkine says. “I don’t. It just happens.”

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The Soleil toured to Amsterdam, Berlin and the Festival of Sicily with “Les Atrides,” but touring hasn’t been as remunerative as it should be. “Because we know it’s expensive to set up a playing space wherever we go, we charge a fee that’s extremely modest. Too modest. So we don’t make more on the road than we do at home.”

The Soleil, which will be 28 years old next year, receives an annual subsidy from the state of 6.6 million francs (about $1.2 million). This constitutes 40% of this year’s budget, says Mnouchkine, adding, “The other 60% has to come from ticket sales ($27 a head) for us to break even.

“This doesn’t cover production costs, but we hang in. Some years we rehearse so much that we can’t make it. That’s when we go into debt. Right now, the Soleil is in a period--touch wood--when it’s paying its debts.” But, she acknowledges, “we’ve just come out of a truly murderous hole.

“We’re still in a lot of debt, but it’s bearable debt, and if we don’t run into too many problems, it’s possible that by February or March we might actually wipe the slate clean. That would be extraordinary. It’s a dream of mine. I’ve never been able to make it happen. But who knows,” she says, “maybe this time. . . .”

Realistically, though, can expensive, labor-intensive theater survive the cheap and rapid deployment of electronic imagery and the world economic crunch?

She reflects. “There are moments when theater seems to have no role left at all, when it seems crushed, debilitated--when I watch television, for example, which is the death of all art and thought. This medium, which could have been a spectacular instrument of instruction, of propagation for the arts, a cultural and intellectual muscle-builder, has become instead a bludgeoning, debasing lobotomizer.

“And yet at other times, talking with people who show up at this theater, 600 each evening, people who have television sets and walk away from them, I tell myself they are manifesting a very powerful need for emotional and cultural connection.

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“When they shake our hands and thank us warmly, sometimes gravely, they are telling us how important it is for them to have places to go where that connection can be made. It makes me want to transmit not what I know, since we never know anything, but what I’m searching for.”

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